Thursday, December 12, 2002

From our reading:

"Tras el cristal ya gris la noche cesa
Y del alto de libros que una trunca
Sombra dilata por la vaga mesa,
Alguno habrĂ¡ que no leeremos nunca."

("Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.")

— Jorge Luis Borges, "Limites" ("Limits"), trans. Alastair Reid

"...I began to make unhelpful calculations, multiplying the number of books I'd read in the previous year by the number of years I might reasonable be expected to live, and perceiving in the three-digit product not so much an intimation of mortality (though the news on that front wasn't cheering) as a measure of the incompatibility of the slow work of reading and the hyperkinesis of modern life."

— Jonathan Franzen, "Why Bother?" (a.k.a. "the Harper's essay"), in How to Be Alone, p. 63 in the US edition.

" everyone in their middle years, I can do the calculations, and they don't augur well for my lifetime bibliography. Say I have 25 years left, at 10 books a year. That's barely a bookshelf. If I were to read all of Dickens — and somewhere, packed away so I don't have to see it, is a complete leather-bound edition — that would be a year gone. Plato, the same (times 20 if we insist, as we should, on the original Greek). Shakespeare, more like two (because you really can't read Shakespeare properly without a detailed commentary). Already it seems daunting, and where do you fit in the latest Jonathan Franzen?"

— John Allemang, "The Secret Life of Non-readers", in the Globe and Mail, 7 December, 2002 (no link because the Globe and Mail has no permanent online archive).

This awful idea (awful in the literal sense) eventually occurs to every individual who privately defines himself or herself as a reader: there won't be enough time to read everything. My first real confrontation with the fact of my own mortality happened one day as I browsed along one of my bookcases, started to pull a volume from the shelf, changed my mind & pushed it back, & suddenly realised I would never actually read that particular now-forgotten title.

Re-reading the Franzen essay recently, I was prompted to make my own "unhelpful" calculation. I don't know how many books I've read this last year — I certainly don't read as much or as quickly as I did in my youth — but an average of thirty per annum seems reasonable & conservative. Multiplied by sixty (longevity runs in my family, both sides), that gives 1,800. I must have nearly half that many unread books lying on my shelves already, but at least I'm doing better than Franzen & Allemang.

Why bring this up now? I've barely posted to my blog this week. One reason is that I've been dismayed of late by the amount of time I seem to spend online. True, much of this time is spent reading — but in stops & starts, skipping, skimming, never quite finishing anything, shifting back & forth between webpages — an altogether unsatisfying mode of being. So the last few days, instead of posting, I've been reading Pepys. I acquired the 11-volume Latham & Matthews edition of the Diary last February, & for nearly ten months it sat piled up on a small chair in my study. Now I'm halfway through vol. 1.

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